Along with mental health advocates and law enforcement officials, St. Louis County Police Sergeant Jeremy Romo coordinates the St. Louis-Area Crisis Intervention Team program.
The program trains officers to respond to people in a mental health crisis. As St. Louis Public Radio’s Durrie Bouscaren reported for NPR Tuesday morning, the need for this service becomes more pronounced as funding for mental health services declines in many communities.
We selected some questions from Bouscaren’s interview with Romo that discuss the Crisis Intervention Team program locally (the transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.)
Ten years ago, what were some of the reasons that St. Louis decided to develop a CIT program?
Kansas City started their program a couple years earlier, I don’t know if we were responding to that or saw a need.
A good example is, I spent seven years in our tactical operations unit. One of our roles was to respond to armed, barricaded individuals. A lot of those individuals have mental health disorders, a large portion of them are suicidal. If we can avoid that ending with some type of use of force, we certainly want to avoid that. The standard procedure prior to CIT was if officers on the road would respond to a call, they would contain that situation and contact the tactical operations unit. We would handle that; we had better training, resources, better negotiations.
One of the things I noticed when CIT was developed and got active in St. Louis, is our call-outs for armed, barricaded individuals, I think, dropped from two to four a month to maybe one a month, or we’d go months without getting any. I think one of the biggest reasons for that is we were equipping patrol officers with the communication skills to make contact with that individual, validate their feelings, listen to what was going on with them. Talk to them in the right manner. What we found was we were getting people to compliantly surrender without us having to get called out.
What makes a CIT officer effective?
The mental health system is so difficult to navigate, and the resources are so lacking. We know in law enforcement that if we interact with someone with a mental health disorder, there’s a good chance we’ll be back. So one of the things I say directly to officers in the training is invest the time in the front end of that interaction, because it’s going to pay off. Because if it takes 40 minutes to de-escalate a situation, if it can be done safely, verbally; the next time you respond to that individual, it may take half that time because you’ve developed that rapport. It will help you in the long run. We have consumers and family members that call 9-1-1 and will ask for a specific officer by name, because of the way that officer has interacted with that particular individual.
About 15 counties in Missouri have established Crisis Intervention Teams to date; an additional 14 are in the works. Why the increased interest?
If you look at a map of the country, [CIT] is clustered in urban areas. What I’m finding when I travel to help expand CIT, that where CIT is lacking is in rural areas. One of the primary goals of the Missouri CIT Council is to expand CIT to areas that don’t have it. We help them start the program, provide the materials. One of the important things about CIT is that it’s standard, certainly statewide. It follows what’s called the Memphis Model.
When you travel to rural areas, you realize that an officer, for example in Linn County, Missouri--which is one of the areas we’re helping start CIT--for them to transport someone to a hospital it’s a 2 1/2 hour drive one way. They may only have two officers on in their town, so that’s half of their shift out of service for almost an entire shift.
One of the biggest obstacles we get from rural areas, is we tell them, one of the first steps is to send your officers to an established CIT program, whether that be in St. Louis, Columbia, Kansas City. The response we often get is we don’t have the money to send our officers for a week to a CIT training. What we are able to do oftentimes is offer to pay for their travel expenses to get them here, because we know it’s an important program. We know that once officers experience it, and we offer to provide them with materials, we know it’s an easy sell. They’re going to take it back to their agency and establish it there.
Providers say they think there’s been an increased interest because of mass shootings.
I think there’s a lot of things, why our training’s increasing. One of those is definitely mass shootings. I think that’s something I think we need to be very careful with because mental health providers have worked very hard to reduce stigma surrounding mental health disorders. And as tragic as active shooter incidents are, still the vast majority of people with mental health disorders are not violent.
As law enforcement officers, we need to partner with mental health providers to identify that small percentage of people that do have the propensity to violence. If we can identify them before they act violently, then that’s a good thing. In the process, what we can also do with that training is get help for the majority of people who have mental health disorders and aren’t getting connected to resources.
I have a course scheduled in October that’s full, with 80 people registered. I’ve got 30 people on a waiting list that are trying to get into that training. We’ve had to add a fourth, 40-hour basic training to meet the increased demand.
What do you hear from officers about why they do it, and why it’s important to them?
We want officers to be volunteers to the training, but I think that first day you look out over that crowd and you see some officers are ‘voluntold’ to be there. But I think by the end of the week you see officers go through a change.
When I went through CIT training in 2004, I distinctly remember a mental health provider telling the class that people with mental illness are more likely to be victims of violence instead of perpetrators. And I thought to myself, that’s not true. Because every call I go to involving someone with a mental health disorder, it’s a volatile situation. There’s potential for violence. But what I learned by the end of the week through interaction with consumers, was that my view of mental illness was distorted based on my occupation. We only get called when things are really bad.
So to me one of the most important aspects of CIT training is the consumer involvement. Having people with mental health disorders there, having officers experience that, interact with them, so they see how people with mental health disorders are most of the time--and that’s nonviolent.